How does the US pursue the corrupt people of the world?
by Ángel Bermúdez
The Honduran Mario Roberto Zelaya Rojas has the dubious privilege of being one of the first Latin Americans to be investigated by a novel program of justice of the United States to combat international corruption: the Initiative to Recover Kleptocracy Assets (CARI, for its abbreviations in English).
This former director of the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) has been detained since 2014 in a military prison in his country, where he faces a criminal trial for a millionaire embezzlement that occurred in that institution.
In January 2015, the US Department of Justice announced a civil action against Zelaya to seize nine properties in the state of Louisiana and other assets valued at about $ 1.5 million.
The US authorities believe that these properties were acquired with funds from a $ 2 million bribe that a Honduran technology company would have paid Zelaya Rojas to obtain payment of a contract for US $ 19 million with the IHSS.
"Our action today demonstrates how the Kreeptocracy Initiative, with our network of judicial partners around the world, will locate and recover the ill-gotten assets of corrupt officials," Deputy Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said when announcing the measure against Zelaya Rojas.
The former director of the IHSS is not the only former official of that institution that has been investigated through this US anti-corruption program.
The former administrative manager José Ramón Bertetty Osorio and the former head of Purchases and Supplies José Zelaya Guevara were also subject to property assurance measures, specifically properties in the states of Florida and Louisiana valued at US $ 1.5 million.
The other Latin American case is that of Jose Cassoni Rodrigues Goncalves, an official of the Brazilian tax agency who was seized funds for about US $ 2 million in 2012, after the authorities of his country accused him of having enriched himself by participating in a plot of tax fraud.
The millions of corruption
The amounts affected by the IHSS case are a very small part of the funds diverted by the corruption that the US authorities are trying to recover.
Since its establishment in 2010, the Initiative against kleptocracy has initiated 26 legal actions related to a score of cases, in which it aims to recover some US $ 1,659 million.
The largest case is related to the deceased general Sani Abacha, who governed Nigeria between 1993 and 1998. This research seeks to recover about US $ 630 million, of which US $ 480 million have already been seized while the remaining amount is still found pending judicial decisions.
Another investigation for very high amounts is the one against Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov.
Considered for years as one of the most powerful people in Central Asia, Karimova was ambassador of Uzbekistan to Spain and to the UN offices in Geneva, as well as model and fashion designer.
The US authorities want to seize about US $ 300 million linked to alleged bribes that she would have received from Russian and Scandinavian telecommunications companies to give them access to the Uzbek market.
Another heir in trouble with the US justice is Teodoro Obiang Mangue, vice president of Equatorial Guinea and son of the president of that country, Teodoro Obiang.
According to information from the Department of Justice, Obiang Mangue "received an official salary of less than US $ 100,000, but he used his position and influence to amass assets for more than US $ 300 million through corruption."
The US authorities seized some of these assets and reached an agreement with Obiang, through which he undertook to sell a US $ 30 million mansion in California, a Ferrari and several valuables that belonged to Michael Jackson, including an autographed jacket. Thriller .
The funds recovered, according to the agreement, must be used for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea.
A specialized team
The US justice system has been pursuing cases of international corruption for quite some time. An example of this is the investigation into the assets of former Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos and his accomplices, which allowed them to recover more than US $ 20 million at the beginning of the last decade.
The novelty of the Initiative against the kleptocracy is that it is permanently counted with experts from the Department of Justice and the Federal Investigation Agency (FBI).
"The Kreeptocracy Initiative plays a key role in the government's efforts to help countries recover assets that were stolen from the people by corrupt leaders," a spokesman for the US Department of Justice told BBC World.
He explained that in 2014, the Attorney General established a team dedicated to these tasks within the FBI "to have greater capacity and greater speed of response to political crises and prevent stolen goods from being hidden by dismissed regimes."
The scope of justice
Despite being a US program, the Kreeptocracy Initiative has broad legal powers to investigate cases that have occurred in other countries.
"Our jurisdiction originates when something from the United States comes into play, such as the use of dollars or our financial system," Darryl Wegner, head of the FBI's International Corruption Unit, told BBC News in an interview.
Money under judgment
Funds demanded by the Initiative against kleptocracy
US $ 630,000,000 Sani Abacha, former President of Nigeria
US $ 300,000,000 Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the president of Uzbekistan
US $ 250,000,000 Pavel Lazarenko, former prime minister of Ukraine.
US $ 71,500,000 Teodoro Obiang Mangue, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea
US $ 1,500,000 Chen Shui-Bian, former president of Taiwan
US Department of Justice
" If money is converted into dollars at some point, we can investigate it, if it moves only in cash from one country to another and not in dollars, we can not, but that is rare, because at some point they want to have their money in currency. it lasts and there are not many options for it, "added Karen Greenaway, special agent of the FBI's International Corruption Unit.
The program is not limited to seizing assets located in the United States.
"It also depends on the collaboration we have from other countries, for example, in some cases in Africa we managed to recover many millions that were not in the United States but in three or four other countries that collaborate with our justice," Greenaway told BBC World.
Although it may seem ideal that the recovery of assets from corruption is achieved as a result of a criminal conviction, the US law provides a type of confiscation applicable to these cases that does not depend on a criminal sentence and is very useful in cases in which it is not possible to achieve it.
Where do the investigations come from?
Although many cases arise at the request of the authorities of the affected countries themselves, Greenaway said that anyone can present a case to investigate .
In addition, complaints do not have to be made in the United States, because the FBI has agents who work as legal advisers in some 60 embassies around the world, who can receive the information.
"We take the information received, we verify it and we value our ability to obtain evidence, if the case is very old, we probably will not be able to, we also take into account the amount of money that may be at stake, because it has to be an amount. high enough to be tracked through the international financial system , "he added.
Until now only the details of the 26 investigations that the Initiative against kleptocracy has had to present to the courts are known, but that does not mean that they are the only cases.
"Investigations take time, a very quick one can last six months, but they can usually take years, and there are not two identical cases," Wegner said.
Perhaps to know new cases will have to wait for the next international political crisis.